‘Liberty’ excels while melodrama of ‘Poetry’ proves a bit over the top for Sarasota Ballet

Dancers shine in Stars and Stripes

Sarasota Ballet stages a scene from Act 3, The Snow-Clad Plain, in Sir Frederick Ashton’s Apparitions. Photo by Frank Atura courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

As Sarasota Ballet nears the end of its season, I want to say I have welcomed the variety in the programs. There has been a mix of the classics (Paquita,Giselle); the new (Ricardo Graziano’s Symphony of Sorrows and Christopher Wheeldon’sThere Where She Loved); contemporary, (Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring); Sir Frederick Ashton’s works (including Rhapsody) and now Ashton’s Apparitions, together with George Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes.

I am certain that even though Artistic Director Iain Webb will continue to explore new possibilities for this growing and developing group of young dancers, he will also continue to delve into the extraordinary inheritance of ballets choreographed by Sir Fred over a long and distinguished career.

Sarasota Ballet’s Poetry and Liberty performances over the past weekend included Apparitions,choreographed by Ashton in 1936 for a 16-year-old Margot Fonteyn and a much older Robert Helpmann. It is set to the lush melodies of Franz Liszt.

A famous Ashton ballet, it has been neglected by today’s ballet world; but Iain Webb thought it deserved to be revived, and he put time, effort and money into the project.

Some people found it beautiful. Based on my one-time viewing, I think that its quasi-gothic story of a poet driven to suicide by drugged dreams of an unattainable love is a melodramatic, choreographic exercise in empty, over-the top gestures by dancers wearing Cecil Beaton’s imaginative and beautiful costumes. In fact, I was reminded of the Victorian Tableau Vivant, a popular entertainment during the 19th century, when actors would pose in re-enactments of famous paintings and/or photographs. A favorite of Queen Victoria, the genre was re-invented by a group of actors in California, where I happened to see such a performance.

Dancers perform a scene in the Epilogue act of Apparitions. Photo by Frank Atura courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

Ricardo Graziano as The Poet in Apparitions did his best to portray anguish but was only able to create a shell of emotion as he knelt before a cross or ran across the stage in pursuit of his dream.

Danielle Brown, as The Woman in the Ball Dress, played with her fan and favored The Hussar (Richard House), instead of The Poet. She did manage to convey a semblance of elegance for her character, though she was almost hidden in the folds of a voluminous black dress.

The Liberty part of the program referred to Stars and Stripes, Balanchine’s ballet bouquet to his new country, which is set to the marching music of John Philip Sousa. It was arranged by Hershy Kay and played by the Sarasota Orchestra under the baton of Ormsby Wilkins for this performance.

It is well known that Balanchine came to the United States as an immigrant, having survived both the Russian Revolution and the First World War. When asked why he would choreograph a ballet to band music, he simply replied that he liked Sousa’s music. And, I would add, it is hard not to enjoy the toe-tapping rhythms of the familiar Sousa melodies played by every high school band. It also was impossible not to experience the effervescence spilling out from the dancers’ own delight in the ballet in this performance.

Said to be influenced by July 4 parades, Stars and Stripes is arranged in five “campaigns,” including a virtuosic, classical pas de deux for Liberty Bell (Kate Honea) and El Capitan (Ricardo Rhodes). They combine for the one personal relationship in the ballet’s impersonal choreography. Balanchine has the different “regiments,” or groups of dancers, arranged in a variety of constantly changing military and geometric patterns that easily outshine the somewhat similar routines of the famous Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall. Katelyn May led the first group of 12 kicking female cadets; Samantha Benoit, in the second twirling regiment, led another 12 prancing dancers. They were followed by Filippo Valmorbida leading the third campaign — this one with marching, leaping men.

Kate Honea and Ricardo Rhodes perform a pas de deux in Stars and Stripes. Photo by Frank Atura courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

Then came the demanding, fast-paced pas de deux for Liberty Bell and her cavalierDancing with both assurance and musicality, both Rhodes and Honea happily breezed through the lively, brassy choreography as if the complicated, musically subtle, devilish Balanchine choreography were as easy as a walk in the park.

Katelyn May leads her ‘regiment’ in Stars and Stripes. Photo by Frank Atura courtesy of Sarasota Ballet

In the ballet’s final maneuver, the entire ensemble of 41 striding, kicking dancers appeared together on the stage as a large American flag filled the backdrop. And the delighted audience applauded.